Author’s Note: I’ve been working flat-out on my current novel-in-progress for the past couple of weeks. It kind of got away from me and I had to pick up a chair and whip and get it back into the cage. Novels can do that. One more week to go and I shall be able to begin work on the print and e-book editions on this book.
Until then, back in ancient Babylon…
‘He’s a genius, an avatar of Ea filled with His wisdom,’ Banipal exclaimed.
Asklepios followed the conversation between Banipal and Ishkun with difficulty. The two men had been kind to him and they were clearly friends. Since Banipal had rescued him he had learned a substantial number of words and discovered he was in Babylon before the fall, that it was a city of magnificence, of stunning wealth, governed by kings who seemed determined to be wise, courageous and just. Everything they did, their daily lives, their politics and war, were governed by their worship of gilded statues that, as far as Asklepios could determine, were not mere representations of divinity but the actual Gods themselves.
Ishkun was less impressed. ‘He is a skinny old man who knows barely sixty words of our tongue. Wise? Perhaps he is, but he is no divine messenger. He did not descend from heaven on the back of a Kurub, you pulled him from the Euphrates like the half-drowned she-goat he smelled of at the time.’
Nevertheless, Ishkun had been considerate, content to sit with Asklepios and teach him new words, carefully repeating them when Asklepios forgot or made mistakes. He had to admit the foreigner was a fast learner who was also civilised, polite and grateful.
Banipal smiled patiently. ‘You do not understand, beloved friend. We converse with numbers, a universal language for learned men. I may be fluent but Asklepios is a poet. He has shown me great things that lie in plain sight, yet none of us see them.’
Always defensive when it came to numbers, Ishkun acted unimpressed. ‘That must be nice for the both of you.’
‘Please, don’t be like that. Asklepios makes me feel like you do when you take me hunting. I cannot see the animal signs until you point them out, it makes me feel clumsy and ignorant. What is obvious to you is hidden from me so I struggle to learn and to remember. But with Asklepios what he teaches, remains. He has opened my eyes.’
‘Tell me some of these simple things.’
Banipal grinned happily. ‘There are numbers that cannot be divided by other numbers. For example, seven and eleven.’
‘Yes,’ Ishkun spoke slowly. ‘So?’
‘Those numbers appear to never end. Thirteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-three.’
Ishkun frowned, working on his fingers. ‘All right.’
‘And numbers go on forever. Whatever number you think of, you can always add one to it. They form an infinity.’
‘I suppose so.’ This was reaching a level of abstraction Ishkun found difficult. Even accepting this was true, what was the point of numbers larger than herds, or armies? There was little point in counting grains of millet or sand, you put the grains in sacks and counted the sacks instead.
‘But these numbers that cannot be divided, although we cannot prove it, they could be an infinity too.’
‘But they are not all the numbers there are.’
Ishkun grimaced as he tried to imagine this, then clutched his temples. ‘What use is that except for making my head spin?’
‘It is amazing!’
‘I’m amazed you are impressed by it,’ Ishkun said, though he smiled as he said it.
It was in the quiet moments like these, after a meal and listening to the two men talk, that Asklepios marvelled at his own resilience. In a handful of days he had been magically whirled first to the unimaginable future then the magnificent past. He had been robbed, nearly drowned, and become a thief himself. After taking a second look at the river he had been hauled from, he felt claiming he had nearly being eaten by crocodiles was only a slight exaggeration.
He was sure that if someone told him all this was going to happen he would have feared for his own sanity. Yet here he was, fed and clothed and in the company of strangers he believed could be his friends. All things considered, he felt fortune was still on his side.
It was strange, the thing he most regretted was losing the measuring instruments he had stolen. They had been so perfectly made, so precise. Now they were somewhere at the bottom of the river. If only he had managed to keep them. If only he had made it home… It was more than simple bad luck. Something had moved against Tim in the dream-lands, a wilful malign interference that cast Asklepios far from home for a second time. He knew one thing fir certain – if he encountered that entity again he would recognise it.
The hidden blessing was that each time he travelled he learned more about his craft and its arts. He tried to explain some of this to Banipal. In the end he simply did not have the words and the conversation collapsed into shaking heads, laughter and gestures.
What he had meant to say was this:
‘I am starting to realise that much of what I did was nonsense and wasted effort. I did not know which parts of a ritual were essential and which were not. Now I see the danger, for over time rituals grow more elaborate and those complications make them prone to error. My quest is not for simplicity for its own sake, but to identify the essentials.’
One thing Asklepios was absolutely certain on was that geometry and accurate measurement were critical. The stolen instruments had clarified his thoughts, especially the half circle so neatly divided. Now, sitting here, he had another idea: why was it necessary to mark out the circle anew every time when a skilled craftsman with good tools could carve a design into wood?
Excited by the thought Asklepios interrupted Banipal’s conversation with Ishkun. ‘Excuse me. Excuse me kind friends.’
‘Yes, Asklepios, what is it? Are you unwell?’
‘No, I am very well. Please, may I ask for making something.’
Banipal listened attentively. ‘What is it?’
‘A bench. No, it is this,’ Asklepios cursed his limited vocabulary and banged his hand on the table.
‘Yes, a table. A fat one.’
From Ishkun and Banipal’s puzzled expressions Asklepios knew he had used the wrong words. He tried again. ‘Not long like this, a fat one.’ Asklepios circled his finger in the air. ‘Fat, big.’
‘He means round,’ Ishkun said. Dipping his finger in his beaker of water he drew a circle. ‘Like this?’
‘Yes,’ Asklepios said. ‘Like that.’
To be continued…